Most Influential Films in American Cinema

The 100 + Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema

The 1940s

Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
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Most Influential, Significant and Important Films in American Cinema
(chronological by time period and film title)
Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Descriptions of Influence/Significance

Fantasia (1940)
d. Various directors, 124 minutes, Walt Disney Pictures

  • Disney's ground-breaking animated feature-length "concert" film milestone, with great works of Western classical music, was an outgrowth of the "Silly Symphony" series.
  • An ambitious experiment to try to popularize classical music, especially by accompanying it with animation. It integrated eight magnificent classical musical compositions interpreted with enchanting, exhilarating, and imaginative, artistically-choreographed animation.
  • The film, with a production cost of more than $2 million (about four times more than an average live-action picture), initially failed at the box-office, partially due to the expensive installation of "Fantasound" sound reproduction equipment in theatres. The "Fantasound" 'stereo-like', multi-channel soundtrack was an optical 'surround-sound' soundtrack printed on a separate 35mm reel from the actual video portion of the film. It was the first American film to use stereophonic sound as well as the first and only film recorded in Fantasound.
  • The film received a special certificate at the 1941 Academy Awards for its revolutionary Fantasound (early stereo).
  • Originally, the film was to consist of only the classic Mickey Mouse segment: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice."
  • The only Walt Disney animated feature film that was two-hours long, at 124 minutes.
  • Often imitated or duplicated - e.g., Disney's own 'unofficial' sequel Make Mine Music (1946), Bruno Bozzetto's Allegro non troppo (1976), parts of The Land Before Time (1988).

Citizen Kane (1941)
d. Orson Welles, 119 minutes, RKO Radio Pictures/Mercury Productions

  • A fresh, sophisticated, and classic masterpiece, and probably the world's most famous and highly-rated film, with its many remarkable scenes and performances, cinematic and narrative techniques and experimental innovations (in photography, editing, and sound). Often considered the "greatest film ever made" on most 'best of' lists.
  • A prime example of the director-centric auteur theory before it was clearly defined decades later - it showcased the achievements of a maverick director-cowriter-producer-star in one film, 25 year-old independent wunderkind Orson Welles, who was the controlling author of the film (not the studio, screenwriter, producers, or others) - it was his debut feature film over which he was given total freedom by RKO. With his four Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture-producer, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay), Welles became the first individual to receive simultaneous nominations in those four important categories.
  • The innovative, bold film is an acknowledged milestone in the development of cinematic technique, with many advances in cinematic movie-making. It brought together and consolidated everything in 'film-language' up until that time, and then broke some new ground with deep focus photography, unconventional lighting, including chiaroscuro, lengthy takes, low-angled shots revealing ceilings in sets, sophisticated directional sound editing, overlapping dialogue, the sound technique termed "lightning-mix," elaborate camera movements, and flashbacks, flashforwards and non-linear narrative story-tellin (shot from various viewpoints).
  • The film began with just a title screen - no performer names - an unprecedented thing in the early 1940s, although common place today.
  • Welles was a trailblazer for future film-makers who wanted to expand the boundaries of film, such as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino.
  • A great example of how external forces can ruin (or help) a film's chances - i.e., publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst accused the film of wrongly portraying him as a ruthless, publishing tycoon who died alone in the castle.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
d. John Huston, 100 minutes, Warner Bros.

  • One of the most popular, stylistic and best classic detective mysteries ever made - a mixture of mystery, romance, and thriller.
  • Many film historians consider it the first major dark film noir production in Hollywood - although it had antecedents. Some of the other most influential noirs of the time period included Double Indemnity (1944) and The Blue Dahlia (1946) (with Alan Ladd).
  • The low-budget film reflected the remarkable directorial debut of John Huston (previously a screenwriter) who efficiently and skillfully composed and filmed this American classic for Warner Bros. studios, with great dialogue, deceitful characters, a great femme fatale, and menacing scenes.
  • B-movie lead character Humphrey Bogart, now introduced as a 'good guy', presented the definitive anti-hero Sam Spade - a cynical, cool San Francisco sleuthing private-eye who lived by his own code of ethics.
  • There were only two of the lead-based, bejeweled Maltese Falcon statuettes originally created by the Props Department for the film. Each lead figurine was 45-pounds and 12 inches tall. The only known film-used Falcon sold at auction for almost $4.5 million in late 2013 - making it one of the rarest and most important movie props or memorabilia ever offered for public sale.
  • The black bird served as the film's McGuffin, a plot device that propelled the story forward but was proven ultimately worthless - although it wasn't termed that at the time. Detective Spade famously called the worthless fake statuette: "the stuff that dreams are made of" (cribbed from Shakespeare's The Tempest).
  • When originally considered for release, the censorial Hays Code office was concerned about the amount of drinking, cursing, and sexual innuendos in the risque film, especially the amoral and promiscuous Mary Astor character. Also, they considered the homosexual references unacceptable (Peter Lorre's effeminate homosexuality, and young homosexual "gunsel" Elisha Cook, Jr.), and they had to be toned down.

Bambi (1942)
d. James Algar, 70 minutes, Walt Disney Animation Studios

  • This highly appealing, popular Disney animated film classic was based on Felix Salten's 1923 book. It was the last Disney feature to emerge mostly unscathed from the problems of the previous year's studio strike, or the start of WWII. Some considered that Bambi's story (the pastoral peacefulness and unadulterated vision of the natural forest destroyed by Man's cruelty) paralleled the traumatic shock that America felt when its stability and innocence were shattered by the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, and worldwide conflict began against outside hostile forces (the Japanese and the Germans) when men were sent away to die in faraway places.
  • The legendary film followed newborn baby fawn Bambi as he grew up, experienced the loss of his mother by a hunter, and eventually became a leader of the herd - a magnificent stag known as The Great Prince of the Forest. The maturing of Bambi illustrated the struggles, turmoil, and changes that accompanied the changing of seasons, the passage of time, and life's survival, as he came of age and completed the cycle of life.
  • The film opened with a beautifully-realized, highly-realistic opening birth scene ("the new prince is born") of a young fawn named Bambi in the depths and undergrowth of the forest. As Bambi grew up in coming-of-age scenes, he walked through the forest, and stumbled over his spindly legs and had trouble with his footing when taught how to walk/run by his cute, energetic and lovable rabbit friend Thumper. During Bambi's first winter, Thumper offered lessons for Bambi on how to slide across the ice - causing Bambi to end up spread-eagled. Other friends included bashful skunk Flower, Owl, and many other forest creatures, especially a female fawn named Faline. During Bambi's first visit to the meadow with his mother, he had a glimpse of his father - The Great Prince, who warned the other animals of the approach of Man - a hunter.
  • In the most traumatic scene (with the sound of a gunshot off-screen), Bambi's mother was murdered by Man - a hunter in a snow-covered meadow. The small fawn who had escaped harm gave fearful cries of "Mother, where are you?" during a raging snowstorm. Bambi's buck father's delivered a fateful message about her death to Bambi: ("Your mother can't be with you anymore") - one of the saddest sequences in film history.
  • There was significant criticism of the emotionally-devastating shooting death scene, and some of the resulting side-effects included denouncement of the sport-hunting industry, and the development of animal rights and wildlife conservationist movements. The numbers of recreational hunters involved in deer hunting markedly declined following the film. Reportedly, the National Audubon Society compared the film's consciousness-raising power to Harriett Beecher Stowe's 1952 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin that helped galvanize attitudes toward slavery. The long-lasting effects of the film were dubbed "The Bambi Syndrome" by historian Ralph Lutts.
  • Others criticized the animation for its candy-coated, idyllic sentimentalism, its over-simplified and distorted views of nature, and its portrayal of cute talking animals.
  • As the film concluded, Bambi matured into a young stag, and courted pretty young doe Faline, but was interrupted by a rival older buck deer named Ronno, and Bambi was forced to fight for Faline's affection, in an expressionistically-filmed fight sequence. In another terrifying scene during the return and approach of hunters, Bambi protected Faline from a pack of mad and vicious hunting dogs unleashed by Man; although Bambi was wounded, he survived. The forest was destroyed by a chaotic and raging wildfire (carelessly caused by a campfire set by Man), and the animals were helplessly caught in the conflagration as they attempted to flee.
  • In the final springtime scene, a grown Bambi (with the recent birth of twins with Faline) proudly took his place and stood with his 'Prince of the Forest' father, silhouetted against the sky, before he ascended to the top position in the herd when his father stepped aside (and presumably passed on). He fulfilled his destiny as a 'young prince' - and eventually ascended to become the leader of the herd - a magnificent stag or buck - like his father before him.
Bambi (1942)

Casablanca (1942)
d. Michael Curtiz, 104 minutes, Warner Bros.

  • Director Michael Curtiz' best-loved film of all time, a perennial-favorite, has become a must-see classic. The much-loved romantic melodrama is always found on top-ten lists of films. It told a masterful tale of two men vying for the same woman's love in a love triangle. The story of intrigue, political and romantic espionage, love lost, heroism, and conscience was set against the backdrop of the wartime conflict between democracy and totalitarianism.
  • With rich and smoky atmosphere, well-paced dialogue, a sentimental script, moody and atmospheric sets, anti-Nazi propaganda, Max Steiner's superb musical score, suspense, unforgettable and a first-rate cast of memorable characters (supposedly 34 nationalities are included in its cast) and great lines of dialogue (e.g., "Here's lookin' at you, kid," and the inaccurately-quoted "Play it again, Sam"), it has remained one of the most popular, magical (and flawless) films of all time.
  • The plot was set during World War II in Casablanca (North Africa) at a seedy Algerian saloon/nightclub run by cynical saloonkeeper Richard "Rick" Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), an American expatriate. The Cafe Americain was filled with European refugees, smugglers, thieves and Nazis. Into his joint walked now-married, long-lost-love Ilsa Lund Laszlo (Ingrid Bergman) and her underground Resistance freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), who were trying to arrange their escape from the Nazis. They urged Rick to help support the French Resistance movement. Vivid memories of Rick's and the luminous Ilsa's passionate Paris love affair (just before the Germans occupied the city) ending in betrayal were shown in flashback. Ilsa asked Rick to help them escape to neutral Lisbon, because he had two "letters of transit" - would he give the letters to them, or would she stay with Rick? The film concluded with the line: "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
  • Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam (1972) paid reverential homage to the film, as did excerpts that found their way into When Harry Met Sally... (1989).
  • From its 8 Academy Awards nominations, the dark-horse film won three awards (presented in early March of 1944): Best Picture (producer Hal B. Wallis), Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
d. Vincente Minnelli, 113 minutes, MGM

  • Vincente Minnelli's delightful, classic, nostalgic, poignant, and romanticized musical film is one of the greatest musicals ever made - a gem of cinematic, picture-postcard Americana and youthful romance. It has become a favorite Christmas-time holiday film classic.
  • The Technicolor film marked the beginning of the golden age of MGM musicals (and legendary producer Arthur Freed's unit), and ultimately became the second most successful film for MGM (behind Gone With the Wind (1939)).
  • The film abandoned the 'put-on-a-show' mentality of so many other backstage song/dance films, or the Busby Berkeley-style of show-stopping production numbers. Its songs and wonderful performances were carefully and naturally integrated into the story of the close-knit family's day-to-day life, and served to thematically advance the action and plot from one season to the next.
  • The film was composed of a series of coming-of-age vignettes (four in number): different acts representing the seasons from summer 1903 to spring 1904 that conclude in the year of the St. Louis World's Fair/Exposition. Each segment marked changes and rites of passage - and was introduced by a filigreed tintype from the Smith family album - each static, initially sepia-toned image turned into color and came to life.
  • This film marked the first significant film role, and probably her career-best effort, for beautiful actress Judy Garland since The Wizard of Oz (1939).

It's A Wonderful Life (1946)
d. Frank Capra, 129 minutes, Liberty Films (Republic Pictures)

  • Director Frank Capra's sweet-natured, sentimental, inspirational classic drama has become a perennial favorite at Christmastime. Frank Capra regarded this film as his own personal favorite - it was also James Stewart's favorite of all his feature films.
  • Its main ultimately uplifting message was about a near-suicidal man, George Bailey (James Stewart) a small-town lender-banker in Bedford Falls, who learned the value of his existence. The hysterical, despairing, and melancholy family man was shown what his small town (Bedford Falls, now renamed Pottersville after the town's evil tycoon) would be like without him. He was presented with a frightening, nightmarish, noirish view of the world (at Christmas-time) that brought him back from self-destruction. He returned to the idyllic, small-town world that he left, with renewed faith and confidence in life itself. Hence, the film's title: It's a Wonderful Life.
  • It was actually a box-office flop at the time of its release, and only became the Christmas movie classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and it fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free.
  • The picture earned five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (James Stewart in his first film in almost six years), Best Director (Capra), Best Sound Recording and Best Film Editing, but it won no Oscars.
  • Two of its most memorable lines were: "Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings," and "A toast - to my big brother George. The richest man in town."
  • A more detailed plot description - charitable, hard-working philanthropist George Bailey, forced to remain in a small town by unpredictable circumstances, became depressed after an accidental financial disaster at his loan company had benefited the miserly Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George was on the verge of committing suicide and wishing that he had never been born - when his crusty-but-lovable guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers), who was desperately trying to earn his wings, showed up to give him a tour of his town without his presence (Bedford Falls had become the decadent and hellish Pottersville), showing him how important he'd been to the lives of his loved ones. Moral courage, small-town American life, civic cooperation, and family love were glorified while corporate greed and selfishness were condemned, climaxed by the man's rescue during an idyllic Christmas card finale. Clarence earned his wings and George learned that wealth was measured in love and friendship.
  • Adam Sandler's Click (2006) paid homage to the classic film.

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